William Shakespeare, in “Henry IV, Part II,” wrote, “Uneasy lies a head that wears the crown.” Oft misquoted as “Heavy is the head that wears the crown” (or a similar variation), a combination of these interpretations should serve to briefly sum up Netflix’s new, weighty period drama, “The Crown.” A heavy, devout evaluation of a woman who ascended to a complex position of power and an office in turmoil after years of controversy, the new drama is dripping with enough import to make viewers overlook an absence of levity and an abundance of familiarity in exchange for such magnificent prestige.
Tracking Elizabeth II throughout her reign, Peter Morgan’s 10-episode first season is a thorough study of how her coronation drastically affected her life, the lives of those close to her and a country she represents. One could say the series is an in-depth look at the personal life of a queen who seems distant to many of her subjects, and a few episodes certainly feel like a special peek behind closed doors. But Elizabeth is always treated honorably by Morgan and depicted with great restraint by Claire Foy, matched only by the character’s telling particulars. Her eyes provide extensive insight into her turmoil; a key attribute for an actress portraying nobility in its most proper, refined moments.
But to say the series is as scandalous as the decisions made by the royal family at its core would be inaccurate. More than drawing back the curtain on Elizabeth, “The Crown” acutely examines the role of a queen at a time when established traditions were fading, particularly in regard to marriage and divorce. A significant chunk of the first 10 hours is spent focusing on Edward VIII, the king who gave up his throne to marry a divorcee, and Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, who wished to marry a well-liked member of the royal guard who was also divorced. Times they are a-changin’, and we see how each decision impacted a country even as we struggle to look past the broken hearts and severed families.
These delicate, thorny issues are handled gracefully, and the actors asked to portray these struggles do so with great perspicacity. Beyond Foy, Matt Smith (as Phillip) walks a fine line between understanding husband and frustrated Navy man. His struggles to accept a subservient role typically reserved for women in the ’50s prove compelling, and the actor’s refusal to dip too deeply into antagonist territory was a wise choice. Jared Harris (“Mad Men”) is a worthy onscreen successor to Oscar-winner Colin Firth, the last actor many saw portray George II (in “The King’s Speech”), and Vanessa Kirby is effortlessly charming and deeply empathetic as Princess Margaret.
On occasion, “The Crown” can feel too self-important for its own good, but anyone addicted to historical dramatizations of the gown and ballroom variety should doubly admire the elegant production and pitch perfect performances. And that means Emmy voters, perhaps above everyone else.
While “The Crown” is undoubtedly great TV, constructed with admirably specific episode arcs that confidently define the season as a whole (perhaps none better than John Lithgow as Winston Churchill sitting for a self-portrait, as ludicrous as that may sound), it’s impossible to watch without thinking outside the story itself (a wandering mind only slightly encouraged by less-than-juicy and far from humorous storytelling). Any mindful TV viewer is well-aware of how much “The Crown” cost to produce, and anyone who’s not will undoubtedly speculate on the topic, because of the show’s obviously massive and lavish presentation.
Why spend so much to tell another tale of English royalty? Well, aside from the finely crafted production elements (which one would assume would be just as good for a different story told by these same talented creatives), Netflix has to see “The Crown” as their best chance to win Emmys. The streaming service has done very well for itself and streaming services in general are breaking down barriers at the prestigious awards show, but Netflix has been unable to take home gold in the top categories. Win-less in Outstanding Drama Series, Comedy Series and Limited Series, its highest honors have come in the supporting acting categories (Ben Mendelsohn for “Bloodline” in 2016 and Uzo Aduba, twice, for “Orange is the New Black”).
“The Crown” could very well change that. Appealing to the same group who swooned over “Downton Abbey” (for years after its soapy peak) and catering to the prestige crowd with a three-time Oscar-nominated director in Stephen Daldry and a two-time Oscar-nominated creator and sole writer in Peter Morgan, “The Crown” should hit voters in their sweet spot.
Whether it does the same for audiences remains to be seen, but I’d argue its first season suffers in comparison to Netflix’s perennial Emmy nominees “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” — and thus to the best of the modern TV era — in one specific regard: courage. Though it’s hard to fault a series so well-written, beautifully shot and impeccably cut together, one gets the sense “The Crown” wants to be more daring than it is, relying on a typically bombastic and propulsive score from Hans Zimmer to carry things forward from episode to episode. The show looks exactly like we’d expect it to and plays out without many unforeseen formal decisions (especially frustrating for viewers with historical insight as to where the story is headed). We’ve seen this style before, and though the formula varies slightly each hour and is consistently carried out to maximum impact, few surprises wait within the 10-hour binge.
Few jokes shine through the overcast atmosphere (which is arguably acknowledged when chronicling The Great Smog of 1952 in Episode 4, “Act of God”). Little is done stylistically to set “The Crown” apart from other royal stories. Instead, the series embraces its genre roots, which isn’t necessarily a problem unless you’re one of the many viewers looking for more from TV these days. With so many good series out there, an edge can really set one show apart from the pack. Morgan polishes over any distinguishing marks in favor of classic shine.
Like the subject it so lovingly examines, “The Crown” feels like an antique to be admired, even if its greater purpose becomes less clear with each passing hour.